Dean Spade and the Limits of the Law

Dean Spade addresses an issue that civil rights activists have grappled with since the 1960s. He critiques the activist approach of focusing on legal reform. He argues that anti-discrimination laws are very difficult to enforce, and that they really serve those with enough money and power to hire lawyers to challenge the system. Anti-discrimination laws do very little to challenge the social structures that exist to privilege certain groups of people over others. In a 2011 interview with Meaghan Winter, he notes that the law is often ignored in order to maintain existing power structures. “Law reforms declaring race and disability discrimination illegal haven’t solved concentrated joblessness, poverty, homelessness, or criminalization of people with disabilities and people of color. Often people who the law says should have equal chances at jobs still don’t have equal chances at jobs, and they’re still on the losing side of the severe wealth divide in the U.S.”

As he mentions, the issue of the limits of legal reform is not exclusive to the trans community. Racial minorities still face poverty and discrimination, despite the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act (as well as other legal acts) passed in the 1960s. The problem is that many seem to think that the passage of such laws means that true equality has been achieved. Policy often serves the privileged, and further marginalizes groups already on the periphery. Passing laws appeases the majority and gives them a free pass to dismiss the issues of minorities. This can be seen when looking at rhetoric around affirmative action. A very popular argument against affirmative action is that racial minorities are already protected by law against discrimination, so why do they need additional help? Isn’t affirmative action just giving handouts to people who haven’t earned them? This argument ignores the fact that anti-discrimination laws do not dismantle structural inequality and racism, and may in fact uphold white privilege rather than batter it.

-Zhaleh Breen
Spade argues that the trans community faces similar obstacles by focusing on the law instead of larger power systems which allow unjust laws to exist in the first place. Passing anti-discrimination laws does not change the fact that trans people are often targets of violence and are economically marginalized. The emphasis from economically privileged activists on the laws themselves rather than the larger systems which uphold them should not be the focus.


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